Is College Readiness the Same as Career Readiness?

Published jul. 25, 2016

Originally posted in Education Week on July 13, 2016.

"College and career readiness"--we hear the phrase so often these days that this mantra of education reform can sound mechanical, almost meaningless. So it's high time to revisit what the words mean now that state and local officials are wrestling with questions about how to achieve the goal of preparing every student for college and careers, as they implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Are college and career readiness the same thing? Or are there different sets of skills, competencies, and attributes for each? And as ESSA gives states greater flexibility to develop their own definitions, standards, and assessments of college and career readiness, what guidance can help promote economic mobility for all?

These were some of the puzzles posed to more than 650 educators, policymakers, and workforce development professionals at Jobs for the Future's recent national summit "Voices for Opportunity and Economic Mobility" in New Orleans.

At a session called "Advancing Equity in the ESSA Era," the audience was asked how much overlap they see between college readiness and career readiness. Their answers were all over the map: 35 percent? 85 percent? 50 percent? 100 percent?

Clearly, the field remains far from consensus on several points. Fortunately, an expert panel shed some light, defining key terms and raising big issues. Here are four takeaways to help inform the inevitable--and important--discussions headed your way soon.

1. College readiness and career readiness are not equivalent, but they are equally important to equity.

Longtime education policy analyst, former University of Oregon professor, and consultant David Conley, who has studied readiness for two decades, parsed the vocabulary and explained the distinctions. The bottom line? College readiness and career readiness require many--but not all--of the same skills. But both are essential for equity.

Conley described college readiness as the ability to succeed in entry-level general-education coursework and move into a program of study or academic major. Career readiness, by contrast, he said, is the ability not just to enter into but to advance through a career over time.

Too often, people still equate career preparation with low expectations, perhaps confusing it with entry-level work requirements, Conley added. However, career readiness requires not only most of the same foundational academic knowledge and learning skills as college readiness, it also requires program-specific foundational knowledge.

The reality of today's economy is that all sorts of jobs that used to require no more than a high school diploma now require postsecondary education that leads, at least, to a certificate. "The baseline level for opportunity, from an equity perspective, is if you're not capable of passing a certification exam, you're completely cut out of almost every meaningful occupational and career track there is," Conley said. "So we need to help all students develop goals that motivate them to keep learning beyond high school."

2. Career readiness deserves a lot more attention than it has received--in education, assessment, and accountability.

When it comes to creating new accountability systems under ESSA, some states may be tempted to keep measuring only what they've been measuring--that is, reading and math performance on standardized tests. But as all three panelists pointed out, it is critical to rely on multiple measures, in order to provide a better gauge of both college and career readiness. The career side, in particular, has received short shrift over the years and demands significantly more attention, they said. When it comes to equity, for example, student aspirations--and how well a school or a state is helping students raise them--is one essential ingredient that should be taken into consideration, Conley said.

3. More employers should get in the education game and take it seriously.

Anne Stanton, the architect of "Linked Learning" education and career pathways for California high school students, noted the tremendous need for employers to dive into equity issues by having a stronger presence in schools in underserved communities. "We need to have a much more animated and connected business community," Stanton said, "with employers that have skin in the game in creating workforce pipelines out of the diverse talent of communities across this country."

Rather than simply attending meetings or sponsoring scholarships, employers can help design work-based learning curricula, offer internships (preferably paid) and get involved in other activities that help build career skills and social capital that many higher-income youth take for granted.

(Note: Employers who commit funding and expertise to this kind of work took center stage at other summit sessions, highlighting specific strategies that are making a difference in schools.)

4. States need to seize the innovation opportunities this policy moment provides.

Terry Holliday, the former Kentucky education commissioner, called on every state to "integrate the wonderful possibilities" provided by the powerful policy trio of ESSA, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and the widely expected reauthorization of the Perkins Act, which governs career and technical education.

"Here's the big opportunity that every state in the union is missing right now," Holliday said. "If you want to do something about economic competitiveness, put all of those people (representing the three policy areas) in the same room to break down the walls between them and come up with a plan."

Among their missions would be to define the skills and competencies needed for career readiness in their regions, as well as to create local systems of career pathways "with a lot of on-ramps and off-ramps and no dead ends."

For a list of recommended priorities to help the nation's high schools prepare all students for college and careers, with the full range of academic, personal, and social skills needed for life success, please check out our policy brief, Advancing Deeper Learning Under ESSA: Seven Priorities. We expect these priorities to evolve over time, as ESSA moves from planning to implementation.